No longer a hero, but the people's choice still: Boris Yeltsin has won unwinnable battles before, says Steve Crawshaw

'IN THE next few days, the fate of Russia will be decided.' That quiet, firm statement from Valeria Gunina, a pro-Yeltsin demonstrator at the Russian parliament yesterday, was no hyperbole. Not since the coup of 19 August 1991, which began the most dramatic week in Russia since 1917, have the battlelines been so clearly drawn.

Now the gloves are off and Boris Yeltsin has effectively declared war on the Communist-era parliament. The crucial question now is how the Russians themselves will react, now that battle has at last been joined.

In August 1991 Russia moved from the worst to the best of worlds within just 72 hours. This time things will be more confused and discouraging. The political sniping of the past 18 months has left the Russian public increasingly disillusioned with the political process and disinclined to trust any of their leaders. But the West should be wary of writing Boris Yeltsin off too early as he fires the first shots in a war that today seems so difficult to win.

Certainly his departure would be a catastrophe. In sharp contrast to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Mr Yeltsin is now the only clear representative of radical change. The rivals who might emerge to take his place are a mixture of neo-Communists, nationalists and assorted opponents of economic reform. But Mr Yeltsin still has cards to play, despite the popular disillusion. At the Russian parliament yesterday there were several thousand people on either side and, despite all the talk on the pro-parliament side about democracy and constitutions, you did not need to look hard to see what the battle was about.

On the northern side of the parliament (where the pro-Yeltsin crowds gathered in 1991) were the pro-parliament demonstrators. Through Soviet-tinny loudspeakers, they played rousing Communist songs and waved hammer-and-sickle flags, together with slogans blaming Mr Yeltsin for betrayal of the motherland and similar crimes. This is what the Yeltsin camp has called the 'red-brown coalition', where Communism and nationalism are interwoven. Some slogans were pious expressions of the need to protect the (Brezhnev-era) constitution. But the reality was simpler: the desire to prevent change.

An optimistic view would see the outcome foreshadowed in the parliament-president struggle in Poland as Communism was finally eclipsed there. The Polish president, Lech Walesa - who, like President Yeltsin, has shown himself to be a master at winning unwinnable battles - entered his conflict with his country's Communist-rigged parliament two years ago. When he tried to ride roughshod over this half-democratic parliament, the West squealed, on the it's-the-best-parliament-you've-got basis.

Western leaders, at least, seem to have learnt from that experience and have been quick to back Mr Yeltsin's stand. But they have often treated the Russian president with wariness. His is not an easy character for the West to understand. Like Mr Walesa, he has an autocratic style. He quarrels with his associates and often fails to consult them on crucial issues - including, according to at least one senior politician, the declaration of presidential rule on Saturday night. But there can be little doubt of his commitment to real change for Russia, or of the courage of that vision.

MR YELTSIN's biggest gamble may be less in the declaration of war on parliament than in countering the apathy of the people - his erstwhile supporters. This month's Congress of People's Deputies, at which Mr Yeltsin and the parliament continued their mammoth wrestling match, dominated headlines all over the world. At home, however, few Muscovites expressed anything except a general disgust with the political dramas on their doorsteps. Only a few years ago, Russians used to sit late into the night watching parliamentary debates and arguing passionately; now, the sullen resentment results in a plague-on-both-your-houses indifference. Everybody can give you a list of the politicians that they loathe. Ask whom they trust, and you will be greeted with a scornful shrug.

This is why it is an extraordinarily difficult moment for Mr Yeltsin to throw down the gauntlet. Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of that parliament, warned yesterday that Mr Yeltsin's attempt to bypass parliament could lead to 'civil war'; others seemed equally ready for confrontation. The defence minister, Pavel Grachev, while pledging the neutrality of the army, declared that 'tempers are running high' in parts of the military.

One pro-Communist demonstrator claimed yesterday that Mr Yeltsin's speech on Saturday night had been an 'act of despair'. Certainly the Russian leader is under greater political pressure than ever. But Mr Yeltsin's hope must be that on this occasion, at last, he can again mobilise some of the public whose presence at the Russian parliament helped to foil the coup of August 1991. However disillusioned with Mr Yeltsin Russian voters may be, the evidence suggests that they dislike the parliament - 'a bunch of Communist Party first secretaries' as one demonstrator described them yesterday - even more.

It may seem strange that the Russian parliament, once the symbol of democratic resistance to the hardliners, has now become the bastion of hardline resistance to the democrats. But its pro-reform credentials were always patchy: Mr Yeltsin came close to being unseated by the strong hardline faction within the parliament only months before the August coup. On that occasion he turned the revolt to his advantage and emerged stronger than before.

Mr Yeltsin is now going for broke. The parliament has refused to hold a referendum on whether power should rest with the president or the parliament; Mr Yeltsin has announced that a nationwide vote will nevertheless take place, next month. The parliament wants to reduce Mr Yeltsin's powers; Mr Yeltsin wants to reduce the power of parliament. Something has to give.

Until now, opinion polls have suggested that only about a third of Russians would bother to vote in a referendum on the division of power. But that was before the crisis that the president has precipitated. It seems likely that support, even now, will be on the president's side. As one pro- Yeltsin demonstrator asked yesterday: 'Why do you think that parliament doesn't want a referendum, and doesn't want the people to decide?'

SVETLANA, an engineer who came to show her support for Yeltsin at the Russian parliament, acknowledged that support for him has slumped. As Russia stumbles towards a market economy, people have been too worried working out how to make ends meet to take to the streets. But, Svetlana argued, things would be different now. 'The Congress - that was different, that was just a spectacle. Now, though, if there's a decision against Yeltsin, people will rally again. We are critical of Yeltsin. We have no illusions. He is not ideal. But at the moment, he is our only hope.'

Mr Yeltsin will need many more Svetlanas - many more than just the few thousand who gathered yesterday. But his chances should not be dismissed. In August 1991 the plotters failed to realise that however unpopular Mr Gorbachev had become, hardliners who tried to stop reforms would be more unpopular still. Times have changed, but that dislike of unelected would-be 'saviours of the country' may be one constant.

Mr Yeltsin is not the popular hero he once was. That is the cost of introducing painful reforms. But anybody who tries to unseat him will be more unpopular still. Even if force is used or threatened, there is no guarantee it will succeed, except perhaps in the short term. On the contrary, it seems destined to fail. The violent deaths of Nicolae Ceausescu (dead in the snow on Christmas Day, after trying to reverse history with tanks) and then, 18 months later, of Boris Pugo (a plotter and Soviet interior minister, who committed suicide when the coup failed) should long since have made that clear to the most bone-headed of those who still seek to resist change, and even to those who may be most greedy for power.

(Photograph omitted)